“Obama is a Muslim. He will burn in hell. 🙂 (John 14:6)”
This was the impressively creative the bumper sticker I saw the other day (smiley face and all). This verse (Jn. 14:6) is the one most quoted by those who enjoy the thought of their enemies (typically the Muslims and the Democrats) burning in hell, in which Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” If I may, I would like to clear the air on this issue, but not by removing from it the stench of hell, as trend would have it. I actually believe that hell is real. I don’t claim to understand it or God’s motivations for it, but I can’t say that I have a problem with it, having read the Gospels. I myself have a son, and my passion for him has the capacity for fury. If he were murdered, I couldn’t imagine containing that fury. That is why I can understand hell more than I can understand grace. So I’m thankful that God is not like me. But say, by some miracle, I chose to offer my son’s death as pardon to his executors in exchange for their gratitude, and they persisted to mock my treasure as garbage, proclaiming, “To hell with him! To hell with forgiveness! To hell with you!” In that case, I would, with all the wrath within me, unflinchingly press them into a white-hot furnace and restlessly spend all eternity feeding it coals. Again, I am not like God, nor he like me, but I can at least say that I would be rather suspect of some god so needy and sheepish that he would welcome everyone at an infinitely wide gate to his kingdom, even those who spit on him as they entered. So it’s not that I think hell isn’t real, like some. On the contrary, I think that there are as many creative ways as there are creative truths that will take you there. In fact, I think the gate to hell is wide enough to accomodate for the Christian with even the biggest ego. Those who refuse hisway are just as far from receiving his life as those who refuse his truth.
Christians who quote John 14:6 out of context almost invariably do so in order to indicate who is going to hell, and almost just as invariably do so with delight. But Christians who delight in the damnation of the lost are in the same boat as Christians who reject the damnation of the lost. It is a lost boat. The life of Christ is indeed unavailable apart from the truth of Christ, but so too is his life unavailable apart from his way. Those who claim his truth are bound to his way, just as those who claim his way are bound to his truth. God did not write the truth in the clouds. He proclaimed it along an unwavering path on this earth until he was red in the face, red in the hands, red in the back, red all the way down from his crown to the dribbling drops from his toes. So those who proclaim it to try to paint others red are rendering themselves twice the sons of hell as the damned.
All are damned. Jesus died for all. Not all will be saved. Salvation comes in a human sized package, not a globe sized blanket. God did not cuddle the world into his loving arms. His arms revealed a much more violent, passionate, particular love. It is a love whose truth must be received and whose way reflected by its recipients, who proclaim its particularity by loving the world in the same particular way, a dramatically persuasive way. The truth without the way is hypocrisy. Just one smirk over even one for whom those arms were splayed reveals a heart that is liable to be thrust over the precipice. If you see a wandering sheep struggling to find its way, then it’s time to get into character: climb up to the highest hill and hang yourself as a signpost, like a dead snake on a stick, until that sheep sees God’s way in you and believes it to be the only way. But don’t for a second think that the Gospel was a silent film, as do those who fight against orthodoxy in the name of orthopraxy. The Good News is not good unless it points to something better than you. The so-called “incarnational gospel” proves to be both deaf and dumb if it thinks that incarnated things should stop speaking. It was, after all, the Word, not the way, that was made flesh. It proves also to be arrogant, because it assumes that its love is as holy as Christ and as humble as his cross, as though their is nothing higher to point to. So the one who proclaims a voiceless, referentless Gospel needs to make sure he or she is powerful enough to save those who hear it. The way with out the truth is humanism. If you let that sheep wander up to your demonstration and never confess it as mere parody, if you act as though any old shepherd will do, as though all shepherds have loved the same, saved the same, bled the same, as though there is nothing unique, nothing worthy of any special praise, as though God loves with other shepherds’ arms, then you better hope that those other shepherds can save you as well.
Christian heartlessness and Christian spinelessness are two symptoms of the same problem. It is the problem of pride, which either tries to raise itself up or bring God down, so that we are either as good as God and therefore God accepts us or as bad as a devil that God is too indifferent to damn. Whichever god pride creates, they both end up looking like the devil. Why is it the tendency for us to assume, despite our view of ourselves, that we have an inherent attractive force on God; that he is near to us in our self-righteousness and near to us in our unrighteousness? We concede a measure of oppositeness, but in the way magnets are opposite, so if God is high and lofty, we are pulled nigh; if God is low and humble, he is helplessessly pulled to our side, an incarnated pat on the back. The first think they are seated at the foot of his throne; the second don’t think there is a throne. The first are the waves that think they can reach the moon; the second are the waves that think the moon is an island in the sea. The first are right to see that God is holy but blind if they see something holy in the mirror; the second are right to see a devil in the mirror but wrong if they see God smiling in the background. Both mirrors reveal the same thing—a god who was molded in the reflection of a man.
God is holy and humble, lofty and low, and we are not attracted to that. God forced contact with his creation and the only attraction that was revealed was the attraction of some iron rods that had his hands in the their crosshairs from before he hit the ground (Mt. 2). God revealed his attraction to us and we revealed our repulsion to him. We are opposite in the way magnets are not. The image of God hated God because he would not let it be more than mere image. A mirror that reveals a different face has to be fixed. God stared his image in the eye to reveal how distorted it had become. So to fix the distortion the mirror was shattered. Better to gouge out God’s eye than let him cast you into hell. Besides, the reflection of the Son was too hard to look at, something like the reflection of the sun. His image had to darken him up. So it scribbled feverishly with the broken glass. With swords and spears it panted and prodded and gritted its teeth until finally some reprieve from the glare—overcast (Mt. 27; Mk. 15; Lk. 23). The light came into the world, but it was darkness that the world sought (Jn. 3:19). So God became dark, dark red so the world could behold his glory without being consumed by it. With the final touches and his final breath, the masterpiece was complete. They stepped back to behold their divine portrait only to discover a mosaic of human effort. The picture they painted of God turned out to be a picture of human condemnation.
God didn’t save you in Christ because he loved you, as though God’s love can be located outside of his saving act. “God has demonstrated his love for us, in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). God’s love is not ethereal and hollow like human love. Love is as concrete as red is a color. Love has limitations and not all colors are red. But the limitation of God’s love is the source, not the amount. It is a ray come down to the world, not a line running through the world. Its point of origin is the Son. Those who turn away from the Son will forever live in their own shadow. Many choose the shadow way by denying the truth of Christ. He will not force their hand to accept him. But many choose the shadow way by denying the way of Christ. And they will not force his hand to accept them.
I don’t pretend to know anything concrete about the referent to that word so carelessly tossed around by some Christians and so carelessly tossed out by others. But I do know that it has a referent. And there is enough description surrounding it to indicate that whatever hell is, it is a big problem. I also know that I am not God, so how I may handle this problem is irrelevant. God handled it by sending his Son to be killed by and for the world. He only requires the gratitude due, which, if genuine, will produce a commitment to the truth and a commitment to the way. Only to the grateful will the life be granted. As one old preacher once said, “This is God’s universe and God does things his way. You may have a better way, but you don’t have a universe.” So the next time you proclaim John 14:6, make sure your mouth and your body are in sync with your bumper sticker. And if they are not, sit down and shut up until you become grateful. Do the world a favor and just be still until you know that you are not God.